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How to Attract Hummingbirds

hummer Ruby Throated Flickr puttefinIn the East, the only type of hummingbird we have all summer, I’m told, is the ruby-throated type. They’re very territorial, so to attract more than one you may need to use several feeders 30 feet apart, out of sight of each other. Here’s lots more about the Ruby-Throated, including what it sounds like, from Cornell.

Using feeders — When?

First, when to put them out? Just check the spring arrival dates by state, then put feeders out 5-10 days before that date. Then the rule of thumb is to leave your feeders up for at least three weeks after seeing your last hummingbird.

Setting them up

  • Mix one part sugar with 4 parts water, boil to dissolve. Or use baker’s sugar, which dissolves in cold water. (Baker’s sugar is sold as Domino Superfine or C&H Baker’s Sugar.)
  • Use an ant guard AND a bee guard to keep them away from the feeders. Or a bit of petroleum jelly over the pole the feeder hangs from will help keep those unwanted competitors away. Hornets in particular will aggressively hog the feeder. Ant guards keep sugar ants from trooping up to take nectar, and later trooping into your house for more. Some Vaseline on the cord or chain hanging the feeder works pretty well, too. It’s hard to keep the solution from dripping, though, so you might want to put a planter or, better yet, a water garden in a large ceramic jar right under the feeder. Or hang it out a little way away from the house so sugar ants don’t set up housekeeping too close.
  • A shady site will attract fewer bees and wasps, but also fewer hummers.
  • If you hang them in partial shade the nectar won’t ooze out and attracts ants.
  • Not much action? Add a red ribbon to feeder, though some people say any color will do. (More tips below.)


  • Clean really well before using, with Q-tip and vinegar-water.
  • Replace and clean every 2-3 days or more, depending on how hot it is.
  • Because sugar solutions cause mold with time, and mold can cause fatal infections in the birds, cleaning the feeders is important. Use very hot water, and rinse a lot. Or use vinegar or chlorine bleach in water (1/4 cup bleach to 1 gallon water, or 1 part white vinegar to 5 parts water).
  • To remove black mold spots, advice ranges from special cleaning concoctions to putting uncooked rice in the feeder and shaking. I’m not making this up.
  • Have someone keep up your feeder while you’re on vacation.

What NOT To do

  • Do NOT use food coloring or honey — bad for the birds
  • Do NOT use honey — it ferments, and that’s bad for the birds.
  • Do NOT use artificial sweetener — it has no nutritional value.
  • Do NOT use turbinado sugar.

Replace and clean as often as every other day? Only for my cats would I go to that much trouble.  Alternatively, how about just growing a few colorful plants and putting out a bird bath?

The Old-Fashioned Way – with Plants

Replace and clean as often as every other day? Only for my cats would I go to that much trouble.  How about just growing a few colorful plants and putting out a bird bath? Here are some hummer-attracting plants that are local favorites.


  • cardinal flower Flickr Dmott9Royal Catchfly (Silene regia) is a native wildflower for Zones 4-7.
  • Pineapple sage
  • Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis)
  • Penstemon
  • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), photo right.
  • Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa)
  • Agastache
  • Columbine (Aquilegia)
  • Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
  • Flame Acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrificius) It’s hardy only to Zone 8 but root-hardy in Zone 7.

Annuals and Non-Hardy Perennials

  • Salvia guarantica ‘Black & Blue’.
  • Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha)
  • Salvia greggi
  • Salvia clevelandii
  • Red flowered salvias (Pineapple, Texas Hummingbird, and Fire Cracker)
  • Red impatiens
  • Nicotiana
  • Fuchsias
  • Lantana
  • Verbena bonariensis
  • Creeping hummingbird trumpet (Zauschneria)
  • Mexican sunflowers
  • Red geraniums
  • Fire Bush (Hamelia patens)


  • Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
  • Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)
  • Trumpet vine Campsis radicans
  • Gold Flame Honeysuckle.(Lonicera heckrottii) It starts blooming early, about the time the hummers show up, and it keeps going until after they leave. Best of all it smells amazing.


  • Butterfly bushes

More Tips for Attracting Hummingbirds

Adding red bows and ribbons will catch the attention of passing hummingbirds. Throw a red tablecloth over your outdoor table… or if you don’t have a table, toss it over something else; it doesn’t have to stay there forever! In early spring it is especially fun to try to catch the attention of migrants.

Add red accents around the garden: garden flags, hang feeders from colorful hooks, wind spinners, stained glass wind chimes, red hanging pots. Or paint a big rock or planter bright red and add a “Welcome Hummingbirds” message to it.

Great Videos!

I love this video, though I can’t help worrying that the little guy might be slurping up red food coloring, which we know by now is a no-no. But guess what — he’s not drinking this stuff by sucking. I found out that hummers are actually LICKING. Really, really fast.

These folks seem to know how to do it — with a red pipe-cleaner wrapped around a solution-filled tube.

Once I started watching, I couldn’t stop. This next one shows one feeding its babies.

by Susan Harris

Photo credit for ruby-throated hummingbird. Photo credit for Cardinal Flower.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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